Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

Making a molehill out of a mountain

The Temple Mount is in the forefront of the news again!

Provoked by the sight of some 1,800 Jews converging on the site of our holy Temple on Tisha b’Av just gone, Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas fulminated that “Jews have no right to set foot on the site” which, he said, is exclusively the province of Muslims. With the ammunition of the infamous UNESCO resolution of 2016 in his armory. he also claimed that even the Kotel (Western Wall) belongs to Islam. Let us recall that this man, hostile to Judaism, is a member of the ruling coalition in Israel today!

Prime Minister Bennett declined to condemn Mansour Abbas’s incendiary remarks — unsurprisingly since, without Abbas, Bennett cannot govern. But even so, Bennett managed to cook up a storm by saying that “freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount” will be maintained”.

Now while previous Prime Ministers have spoken about “freedom of visit for Jews on the Mount”, Bennett is the first to have spoken of “freedom of worship”. Sadly. and very worryingly, however, Bennett’s office subsequently “clarified” that he had not intended to say “freedom of worship” but merely “freedom of visit”. It is sad and worrying because this sort of walk-back paints the new PM as a weak leader who will back down in the face of the slightest pressure. It will do nothing but give encouragement to Hamas and its ilk.

However, what is equally concerning is that Jews themselves are confused as to what our relationship with the Temple Mount ought to be since, as is well known, there are halachic issues regarding setting foot on that holy place

In 2016, in one of my first Acute Angles columns, I addressed this very question. I am reproducing an updated version of it here as the issue has never been more relevant than now!

QUESTION

Dear Rabbi.  We Jews are indeed a strange people! We are (rightly) outraged when UNESCO  (in 2016)  passes a resolution to declare the Kotel (Western Wall, part of the outer retaining wall of our Second Temple) an exclusive Muslim holy site and subsequently in 2017, UNESCO declared Hebron, the cradle of ancient Israel’s civilisation, a “Palestinian world heritage site) yet we are happy to cede custodianship of, and praying rights at, the actual Temple Mount to the Muslims! Can you please explain?

RESPONSE

Your question is an excellent one.  We have succeeded in bamboozling the world mainly because we are thoroughly confused ourselves!

Halacha, according to majority opinion, forbids accessing any part of the Temple Mount due to the fact that we are not of the required level of tahara (ritual purity) absent the para aduma (red heifer) purification rite.

It is true that the area presently known as the Temple Mount is much larger than the area of the original Har haBayit and thus there are areas which are theoretically permissible to be accessed nowadays.

Some rabbis, notably Rabbi Moshe Tendler son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ztl, have sanctioned going up to these permitted areas after immersion in a mikveh. In recent years groups of Belzer Chasidim have permitted themselves to visit though I am not aware that this was ever formally approved by the Belzer Rebbe.

However most leading rabbis are apprehensive lest the boundaries be accidentally – or deliberately – breached. They therefore do not halachically permit going up to any part of the Temple Mount. This is the view not only of chareidi sages but also most modern-Orthodox and Mizrachist rabbis.  It was also the view of the doyen of pre-State pro-Zionist sages, Rav Kook ztl. (1865-1935).

Therefore, the decision of the Knesset to not formally allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount or, at least, on the actual har haBayit is one with which mainstream halachic opinion would concur.

However, the twist in the tale is that the government has (except at especially sensitive times) allowed Jews limited access to visit this holiest of sites. Once they are up there, they are instructed much in the manner of the old Jewish joke: “Don’t you dare let us catch you davening!”

The idea that a Jew may only occasionally access its holiest site and never utter a prayer there is perverse in the extreme!  A consistent policy needs desperately to be drawn up. Such a policy must recognise that the requirements of halacha are an entirely separate and distinct issue from the entitlement of national sovereignty.

Unfortunately, the distinction has hitherto not been emphasised. or even sufficiently acknowledged by any grouping in Israeli society, religious, nationalistic or secular.

When on June 7th 1967, paratroop commander Motti Gur proclaimed the famous words har ha-bayit be-yadeinu (“The Temple Mount is in our hands!”)  he was not making a halachic statement.  Equally, Moshe Dayan’s hasty and unwise decision to take the Har haBayit out of our hands just a few hours later by presenting the keys of the Temple Mount back to the Islamic Waqf was an entirely political one, not made in consideration of halacha or in consultation with rabbinic leaders..

Regretfully, one may say tragically, the Israeli resolve to cede custodianship of the Temple Mount to the Muslims has been interpreted as a tacit acknowledgment that Jews have relinquished all rights to the Temple Mount.  Years of Arab desecrations on our most sacred spot have been tolerated without consequence.

It should therefore surprise nobody that (five years ago) UNESCO, at the behest of a slew of Muslim nations with no diplomatic relations with Israel, took the opportunistic step of designating the Western Wall whose only claim to sacredness in Judaism is that it is a part of the Temple Mount an exclusively Muslim holy site.

After all, they can declare, if the Jews themselves have relinquished custodianship of the Temple Mount, isn’t its outer retaining wall also ‘on title’?  And therefore, what claim have the Jews to ownership of that wall?

Sadly, we Jews seem to be doing little to clarify the thinking of the world on this issue.  Maybe first we need to clarify matters in our own mind!

******************

The first reference to Har haBayit, the Temple Mount, occurs early in the book of Genesis.  Abraham is told “take your son … Isaac and go to the land of Moriah” (Gen 22:2). Mount Moriah, scene of the Akeda (which Abarbanel calls “the reason for Am Yisrael’s existence in G-D’s eyes”) is synonymous with the Har haBayit.

Many people mistakenly think that this is ‘merely’ a Midrash. If it were just this, it would still bear massive weight. But it is in fact declared so in the Bible itself.   “Solomon commenced building the House of G-D (Temple) in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah ….in the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite” (II Chronicles 3:1).

Ornan, (also known as Aravna) originally held ownership of this parcel of land.  He actually offers King David this site as an outright gift.  However, David, with prophetic acuity, divining that this site would one day be bitterly fought over, responds: “’No, I shall buy it from you at full price’”  The next verse states ‘”David gave to Ornan for the place shekels of gold weighing six hundred” (I Chronicles 21:24-25). Thus Har HaBayit is ours not just by Divine promise (see Exodus 3:8) but by title deed!

Tellingly, two other sites are in the same definitive category.  The parcel of land in Shechem (called by the Arabs Nablus) which was to become the Tomb of Joseph was purchased by Jacob “from the children of Hamor ….for one hundred kesitas” (equivalent, according to the Talmud, to the enormous sum of 14,400 shekels) (Gen. 33:19).  And the Cave of Machpela in Hebron, burial place of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, was bought by Abraham for 400 silver shekels (centenaria, worth one million regular shekels according to the Talmud [Baba Metsia 87a]) (Gen. 23:16).

It is therefore unsurprising, if highly brazen, that these are the very three sites with which the Muslims desperately and perversely attempt to deny our historic association – aided and abetted by the Arab-dominated UNESCO.

Is it not high time that our national and representative leaders spoke out with a strong, firm, unequivocal voice, saying:  Israel is not merely a haven of refuge for persecuted Jews.  It is not a guilt-offering by the nations of the world for the suffering of the Holocaust.  It is our G-D-given land.  And Har haBayit, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Joseph’s Tomb are ours by Divine promise and by title deed.  The Bible, which is held sacred by Christians as well as Jews clearly and unequivocally says so.. The Qur’an also recognizes the Land of Israel as the heritage of the Jews and it explains that, before the Last Judgment, Jews will return to dwell there. This prophecy has already been fulfilled. So you have no claim against us!  If we choose to give adherents of Islam full access to their mosques on our holiest site yet elect not to freely go up ourselves to the Temple Mount at present because of the supreme sanctity of most of its area and because of our enduring impure state, that should in no way be interpreted as a relinquishment of entitlement. It is merely a temporary act of self-denial and self-discipline, pending the full Messianic dawn which we anticipate very soon!

What a shame no Israeli leader speaks like this! How long before we finally learn that our enemies bully us when we are spiritually weak and fear us when we are spiritually strong!

Israeli schoolchildren are reared on Tanach, yet while Israel continues to take more pride in being a Western secular democracy than in being the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy, while Israel continues to make a molehill out of a mountain, nothing will change.  Hamas will continue to rise up against us periodically and trounce us contemptuously in the propaganda war and Israel’s next generation, not to mention large swathes of Diaspora Jewry, will be in danger of losing the sacred historic plot altogether.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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